Last week, Oscar-nominated actor Elliot Page shared his announcement that he is transgender, one of the most high-profile public figures to do so. Elliot has shared his journey of self-awareness and self-actualization over the course of several years, and garnered support from many and condemnation from many at each step of the way: a symbol of how queer people’s sexuality and gender is up for debate in our public forums.
The media focus on Elliot also has the unfortunate effect of yet again centering the conversation about transgender identity around very privileged white people. Elliot Page himself has carefully framed his own message to focus on Black and Latino/a/x trans folks, correctly noting that BIPOC trans people face the highest levels of violence. Every trans person’s journey is different. For some of us, we must also carry the burden of the racism we experience every day of our lives.
The messages that I received about gender and sexuality while growing up were very centered around cisgender heterosexual folks. A lot of my knowledge was handed down to me by my parents and educators, who for the most part are/were cishet. I had no one to educate my younger queer self on gender and sexuality. For a long time, I was taught how young ladies should act, what a woman's “role” was in a relationship, family, etc., and vice versa for men, until I was given the language and knowledge to break out of that mindset.
As I began to explore my own queer identities, I learned about my community through media. My first knowledge about trans folks, to my memory, was watching Orange Is the New Black and seeing Laverne Cox. That was my first real impactful interaction with trans folks, specifically Black trans women, and how they are treated by our society and community. In the show, I loved her character and that drove me to learn more about the trans community and how I could be an ally to trans folks.
Now looking back, those messages from my family “made sense” in my head because I did not have the knowledge of the language to be able to understand anything outside of what was taught to me. In actuality, those messages and “jokes” centered heteronormativity and literally erased the identities of LGBTQ+ folks, especially trans and nonbinary folks.
Until this day I still deal with transphobic thoughts — things that are so normalized within the queer culture but also Black culture. I started to ask myself, why did I just think that or where does that belief come from? Who has reinforced this idea in my head? I am constantly unlearning and learning. I think for us to be allies to our trans family, we have to be fully committed to doing the work.
Whether that's taking a step back and listening or fighting for policy on behalf of our trans community. We must first challenge ourselves and then challenge the world.
I think because of the home that I grew up in and what was constantly reinforced, I was scared to come out as non-binary. I have never always felt 100% woman, I have always felt othered, but I never really had the language for it. I would always say that “I’m just Khouri.” I believe that homophobia and transphobia are two completely different experiences for me, as far as what I heard growing up and it pushed me further away from accepting my own non-binaryness within myself.
It really wasn't until I got to college I was able to begin to unpack my own internalized homophobia and work through and hold myself accountable to the normalized transphobic culture that exists within multiple marginalized identities that I am a part of (Black community, Queer Community, Womanhood, etc.). But we should not have to wait until we get college: this is harmful to all LGBTQ+ folks, but especially trans folks. Education about race, gender and sexuality should be a right, not something that we have to beg for. If we were given the knowledge and the language early, in my opinion, it would save countless lives and so many more people would be open to having conversations about gender and sexuality.
We also need to continue to call for Black liberation, and face and dismantle the racism that exists within white gay and trans communities – from folks who openly identify as white supremacists, to folks who simply choose not to question their privilege or acknowledge the lives and specific challenges of Black and Latino/a/x queer people.
Trans people have long been leaders on these issues. In fact, Black and Latina drag queens and trans women led the Stonewall Uprising, perhaps the most famous demonstration for LGBTQ rights in history and the start of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. For me, I am constantly evolving, and my knowledge of gender and sexuality is constantly changing each day. I know I have to be committed to do the work and to show up – as we all do. I honor Elliot Page for sharing his journey, and I honor all of the trans activists of color who have been fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ community since the Stonewall Uprising and before.
Khouri A. Lassiter, 21, is a YouthResource activist with Advocates for Youth, an organization that works alongside thousands of young people in the U.S. and around the globe as they fight for sexual health, rights and justice.